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Black Power -- Rhetoric to Reality


By Charles J. Hamilton

The Kennedy Institute meeting room was filled and quickly grew crowded. Students moved their chairs closer to the conference table.

"This should be good," one student said, turning and nudging the one next to him.

"Yeah," commented the other student impassively. "I hope someone asks him about this 'revolution thing,'" he added, nervously fingering his copy of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton.

At the head of the conference table, Charles V. Hamilton looked over his notes from an earlier meeting. Lighting his pipe and leaning back in his chair, Hamilton began speaking to the study group. His voice was characteristically calm and deliberate as it sliced through the tension of the room.

"It is indeed unfortunate that in a most crucial and frustrating year, the needs and concerns of black people in America have been pre-empted by a Presidential election and a war. For those whites who didn't know or didn't want to know the reasons for black people's frustrations we now have the Kerner Report. It only says what black people have known all along: that the processes and structures of American politics are illegitimate to the black community. A further marginal extension of the welfare state is not the answer. We will no longer be absorbed by the integrationist ethic. This has nothing to do with 'honkey' talk or 'burn baby, burn.' This directly and specifically means the alleviation of black dependency; it is incumbent upon black people to control their own communities, because if they don't somebody else will."

The impact of Hamilton's remarks lingered heavily in the smoke-filled air above the conference table. While some students began quickly scribbling notes and questions, Hamilton continued, his voice taking on a matter-of-fact tone and the tiredness of his two days of meetings.

This study group meeting was one of many that took place during Hamilton's two-day, Kennedy Institute-sponsored visit to Cambridge. With the release several months ago of Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America, which he co-authored with Stokely Carmichael, Hamilton has emerged as one of the principal Black Power theorists. At Harvard, the 18th campus he has visited since September, Hamilton said he wanted to pursue relevant political dialogue by beginning "at the point where the book ends."

Hamilton correctly predicted that his arrival at Harvard would be immediately met by questions dealing with his "political descriptions of America and politically prescriptive formulations of Black Power." Many students referred to the critical reviews Black Power had received by Fred Powledge in the New York Times and Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books. For some the book was a disappointment; it was not radical enough--it established violence as disfunctional in the course of Black Power politics. Others complained that the book was not programatic--it gave the crux of the problem with only vague outlines of solutions.

Hamilton wasted no time with polemics. His comments were directed at students or faculty, and to the point. Hamilton's emphasis throughout the meetings and discussions was upon "independent, Black Power politics."

"Stokely and I didn't write that book to give neat, pat answers to problems centuries in the making. We have simply tried to create an ideological framework in which a number of different kinds of independent; black political activity are possible. The ultimate solutions to the problems of black people must come through political victories--black political victories. Political strategy -- programs, if you will-don't come from books. Our work may act as a catalyst to political strategizing. But the real answers must come from the indigenous political situations where programs take form. Black Power can't relate specifically to every political situation. Priorities differ from community to community. If Stokely and I had tried to be any more specific or programatic we would have been relevant to a few specific places and irrelevant to the rest of the national black community. Books alone aren't the answer. That's why I spend so much time in Newark and Gary and Chicago's Third Congressional District."

In seminars, study groups, luncheons and dinners, Hamilton continually emphasized and spelled out the requirements for bringing political power to the black community.

"I have no interest in redirecting the major parties. Black people can no longer just be interested in an incremental increase in goods and services; our interest and need lies in the protracted process of decision making. We need new and legitimate channels and structures and radically new programs which blacks control. There is a 'procrastination component' built into the party process which simply means we must take political initiative. The crucial task for Black Power politics lies in politicizing a people who have suffered political disenfranchisement for centuries. Black Power politics is the first step in a process to change the social and political regard of the black community towards political hegemony."

Hamilton came to Harvard in the midst of the public controversy surrounding the Kerner Report. As a result, recurring questions centered around urban unrest and violence as a component in the strategy of independent, Black Power politics.

'We know that there is enough pentup frustration to literally destroy our major cities--LBJ told us that on national television," Hamilton grimly asserted at an afternoon luncheon meeting. But, the analytic Hamilton succinctly added, "Violence emanating from the black community can be seen in several ways. Riots are an expression: They release frustrations and tensions. But they are functional only in the Fanonish sense of therapy. The problem with riots are first, that they get black people killed and secondly, that they are not politically instrumental. The same people who are involved in riots aren't around for political organization later. But how can I condemn riots when they happen to be the only form of dissent black people have to protest the estranged position they hold in this society?"

Hamilton went further to discount the possibility of an "armed black revolution," claiming that "riots are not preludes to revolution and the notion of black separatism is not at all pervasive in the ghetto. But the import of riots must be understood in terms of the grave psychological dilemma which blacks in America are breaking out of." Taken to its conclusion, Hamilton's implication is that blacks are through with the self-demeaning black mentality which is reinforced institutionally by the subtle and pervasive racism of which the Kerner Report spoke.

Black people are becoming aware that their negative self-perception is a result of white attitudes and not of black behavior. The violence of the ghetto is a result of the frustration of black people working within the qualifications which white society sets for meaningful participation. Thus, in a curious way, violence amounts to playing the only role that the established society has left open for the disenfranchised.

Hamilton pointed out that Black Revolution is not a reality, but he did not underestimate the chances for recurrent violence this summer. His gravest apprehension, however, concerned the publicly acknowledged buildup of militaristic means for dealing with urban violence.

"There is no doubt," he commented, "that with the current predictions of renewed violence in the cities, police and the National Guard are being ordered to prepare." What is most frightening about this preparation is, in Hamilton's words, "the escalation of response." He stated that "the response to urban unrest this summer is going to be suppressive and absolute--it's not going to be very pretty."

In all his remarks concerning violence and the corollary development of police militancy, Hamilton ominously added a warning to whites: "When a nation gears itself to deal with its social problems in the manner in which our police forces are doing so, it places in jeopardy not only the civil liberties of blacks, but whites as well."

Hamilton never lacked a rapt audience. His most enthusiastic reception came from the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students and the Harvard Law School Black Students' Association. A natural empathy developed between the black audiences and the black lecturer--pervading ease mixed with a vital excitement.

Hamilton entered the crowded room of the AAAAS meeting and laughingly asked: "Who here is from Chicago?"

As several voices and hands responded in unison, Hamilton quipped, "Well hurry up and come on back. We need you in Chicago, baby."

Even in the informality of his meetings with black students, Hamilton's discussions were serious and his perspective sharp. He spoke critically of the "rhetoric revolution" and the "millennium talk," observing that revolutionary rhetoric was not an answer but an escape from the problems of black people. "That kind of talk can only alienate you people here from the task that has to be done and the job of redressing black political history can't be done without black people like you with all your skills, abilities and imagination."

"We've got to start redefining what radicalism is all about," Hamilton added. "Our problems are radically bad, and their solutions must be radically different from those already proposed. It's going to take more than just radical rhetoric--we are going to need people like you to initiate radical, pragmatic programs of action."

Hamilton's sharp insights and impressive discussion on a wide range of issues beyond those just related to the plight of the black man in America only reinforced the thoughts of many students, particularly the black students, that the need for black instructors at Harvard can no longer be ignored or overlooked. Hamilton's impact on whites and blacks was equally important and impressive, even if for different reasons. "It irks me," one black student commented, "that we see individuals like you once or twice a year, if that often. We need people like you here at Harvard and not just for a visit."

Charles V. Hamilton impressed his audiences here with his ability to conceptualize and articulate the manifold problems and tensions imposed by the American racial dilemma. There was no doubt that Hamilton had done his homework, and he drew often from recent experience outside the classroom. He faced questions directly, often taking them beyond their obvious conclusions, and always with striking candor. To the question of what the white's role is in Black Power politics, Hamilton quickly replied: "The (Kerner) Report speaks to whites, not blacks; what happens as a result of it depends on whites. Your place is in the white community just as ours is in the black community. Your work in the white community--changing the deeply ingrained racism--is as crucial as ours."

Hamilton replied, in one of his few emotional moments here, to a white professor's question as to what academics can do: 'If your ranks can grow and mine can grow, we can affect a rapprochement and try to end this mess." It is indeed unfortunate that there aren't, as one student said, more Charles V. Hamilton's around. His very presence here is a salient indication of the black leadership void which exists in academia as in politics.

With an acute awareness of the crisis to which he spoke--but without the tortured rhetoric of frustration which usually accompanies it--Hamilton has provided crucial and timely answers. But the tension between the rhetoric and the reality--the need for translation of ideas into answers--weighs heavily even on a Charles V. Hamilton. As he said in his last meeting: "I'm tired of just talking.

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